Taco Mac & Cheese {like DIY Hamburger Helper}

Taco Mac & Cheese

Taco Mac & Cheese

Have we ever talked about how I went from a fast food diet to Ari’s Menu? I could hardly boil water. My dad can’t even make spaghetti or boxes of Kraft mac & cheese. I grew up constantly eating out, and spent the first few years of college making grilled cheese sandwiches, heating up ramen noodles, and in the Jack in the Box drive through.

Taco Mac & Cheese

When I moved home from Idaho, I had sparked an interest in cooking. I graduated to Hamburger Helper. It’s funny now, but I loved the stuff. I would swap out my ground turkey, and for me, that was “healthy cooking”. I guess I’ve come a long way in the last few years. :) Just ask my mother in law about the time I tried to make gravy….

Taco Mac & Cheese

When the thought occurred to make taco mac & cheese, I didn’t realize that it was so similar to the Hamburger Helper I started out on, but it is similar–just a whole lot better. Real foods, tons of lean protein, and whole grains. Plus, it’s so simple that there is really no reason to cook from a box ever again!

Taco Mac & Cheese

I made this for Steve and Jason to rave reviews. I’m pretty sure Jason ate 3 bowls. Then I gave Steve’s mom the leftovers when she came over for lunch, and she’s been asking when I’m going to post the recipe ever since. :)

Taco Mac & Cheese

All of the flavors of macaroni and cheese mixed with bold spicy taco seasonings topped with creamy avocado for the perfect final touch. I loved this dinner so much I made it again not even a week later! That is unheard of for me.

Taco Mac & Cheese

My favorite thing about this dish is it really represents everything I feel like this blog stands for–simple comfort food made healthy. That’s the whole reason I started cooking–I didn’t want to give up foods like tacos and mac & cheese. :)


Taco Mac & Cheese

yield 6-8 servings

  • 1-2 tsp olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 bell red, yellow, or orange bell peppers
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 lb lean ground turkey or beef (I used 99% ground turkey breast)
  • salt and pepper
  • 8 oz whole grain macaroni (whole wheat, brown rice, quinoa….whatever works for you)
  • 4 oz reduced fat cream cheese
  • 3/4 cup unsweetened almond milk
  • 1 cup nonfat plain Greek yogurt
  • 3 tbsp taco seasoning
  • 1 tbsp lime juice
  • couple dashes hot sauce
  • 2/3 cup shredded reduced fat sharp cheddar cheese
  • sliced avocado and chopped cilantro for serving


  1. In a large pan over medium heat, saute onion, bell peppers, and garlic until tender, about 10 minutes. Add turkey and season with salt and pepper (about a pinch of each). Cook until turkey is browned, then remove from heat.
  2. In a medium pot, cook macaroni according to package instructions.
  3. Meanwhile, in a large pot, whisk together cream cheese and almond milk over medium-low heat until combined. Whisk in greek yogurt, taco seasoning, lime juice, and hot sauce. Stir in cheddar cheese until melted and combined.
  4. Stir turkey and veggies into sauce, then stir in cooked and drained pasta.
  5. Top with sliced avocado and fresh chopped cilantro.

Pumpkin Mac & Cheese

Pumpkin Mac & Cheese via Ari's Menu

Okay, maybe you think I’ve gone off the deep end. Maybe you haven’t been lucky enough to experience how awesome pumpkin can be in a savory dish? Or maybe you’re like my husband, and you hate pumpkin.

But guess what??? Steve loves this dish! I try to get him to sip my pumpkin coffee and he acts like I handed him wheat grass, but pumpkin mac and cheese, even he can get behind.

LOOK AT THE STEAM!!! *happy dance*

The texture of the pumpkin puree works so perfectly to make a creamy sauce with no butter. This mac and cheese is actually good for you, and super filling so, even if you’re like me and want to eat delicious things until you can’t even lift the fork anymore, you won’t need to eat too much. Promise 😉

I made this for the first time last year with Jason.

I take my stirring very seriously.

Jason is good at following directions. I just yell commands at him “JASON STIR!”

This is what the mac and cheese looked like then vs now


I’ve actually made this many times since then because I love it sosoSO much. I figured it was time to update the photos :)

This is perfect for a Thanksgiving side, a fall dinner, or any time really (like, um, carb-o loading)!

Pumpkin Mac & Cheese

yield 4 servings

  • 8 oz uncooked whole grain penne, macaroni or other pasta (whole wheat, brown rice, etc.)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 cup pumpkin puree
  • 1 cup unsweetened almond milk
  • 4 oz reduced fat cream cheese
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated goat cheddar cheese (or reduced fat cheddar)
  • 1/2 cup goat brie cheese, rind removed, cut into cubes
  • pinch freshly ground nutmeg
  • pinch ground cloves
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste


  1. Cook pasta according to package directions, drain.
  2. Meanwhile, whisk together and heat pumpkin puree, garlic and milk in a medium saucepan over medium heat until just starting to simmer.
  3. Reduce stove heat to low. Whisk in cheeses until fully melted.
  4. Stir in nutmeg and ground cloves. Season with salt and pepper.
  5. Stir drained pasta into the pumpkin-cheese sauce and mix until thoroughly combined.

Loaded Butternut Mac & Cheese


You know what I love about macaroni and cheese?


I mean aside from the fact that the combination of carbs and cheese  is pretty much the most amazing thing on earth.

I love that there are so many options.

This mac & cheese….ooooooomg. It’s filled with center cut bacon, caramelized onions, and crispy sweet apples for the most amazing and surprising flavor combination. I wish I could tell you it was my idea. It totally wasn’t. I took it from this awesome lady, and changed a few things around.

Steve claims to not like butternut squash, but he definitely helped himself to seconds of this dish! The thing about adding butternut squash/pumpkin/sweet potato to mac + cheese, is that is just adds some creaminess, fullness and a hint of sweetness. You can use less cheese, but still get a thick, creamy, cheesy sauce that feels like you are breaking every diet rule you’ve ever followed.

I love how all of the textures come together in this dish too. Creamy, silky cheese sauce with crunchy bacon, crispy apples and perfectly tender onions. Opposing flavors and textures = my favorite thing ever. This dish has both. Excellent.



Loaded Butternut Mac & Cheese

yield 6 servings

adapted from Butternut Squash Mac n’ Cheese with Bacon, Caramelized Onions, and Apples

  • 2 cups dry whole grain pasta (brown rice, whole wheat, etc.–I had rotini on hand, but macaroni or penne also hold cheesey sauce really well)
  • 1 cup butternut squash puree (I steamed chopped butternut squash and pureed it with my immersion blender, but you could buy canned, or even better, roast it first!)
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened almond milk
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • 1 oz low fat cream cheese
  • pinch salt
  • 1/2 cup shredded 75% reduced fat cheddar cheese + extra for topping
  • 1 tablespoon light whipped butter
  • 1/2 yellow onion, sliced thinly
  • 1 large crispy apple, chopped
  • 4 slices center cut bacon, crumbled


  1. Melt butter in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add onions, cover and cook on low-medium low for 30 min, tossing occasionally. When fully cooked, remove from pan and set aside.
  2. Cook the pasta according to package instructions. In a large skillet over medium heat, whisk together butternut squash, wine, milk, and cream cheese. When combined, add in salt, then stir in cooked pasta.
  3. Add onions and apples to the pasta. Stir to combine and add a dash more milk if needed.
  4. Stir in cheddar cheese, then transfer to a n 8×8 cooking dish. Top with cooked bacon and a small handful of extra cheese. Broil for 2-3 minutes until the top browns slightly. Serve immediately.


Spinach Artichoke Mac & Cheese


Honestly, is it ever too early to start carb-o loading?

I think not. I really can’t believe I didn’t think of this sooner. There aren’t many things I love more than mac & cheese and spinach artichoke dip. Or just anything including cheese 😉

In fact, when I was younger and I started to get full, I would just pick any remaining cheese out of whatever dish I was eating. Hey, I never said there wasn’t a reason  I was 80 lbs overweight. Clearly, I cannot give up cheese forever. I tried once, and I think I lasted 36 hours. Therefore, it is clearly necessary for me to create creamy, cheesey dishes like this baby.

This mac & cheese is creamy, filling and full of flavor, but doesn’t leave you feeling heavy and overly full at the end. Instead of tons of pasta, it’s packed with veggies!

Also, start to finish is about 15 minutes. Yes please.


Spinach Artichoke Mac & Cheese

yield 6-8 servings

  • 8 oz dry whole grain pasta of choice
  • 1/2 tbs light whipped butter
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 8 oz reduced fat cream cheese
  • 1 cup unsweetened almond milk
  • 1 oz herbed goat cheese
  • 1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
  • 2 tsp lemon pepper
  • salt to taste
  • 10 oz package frozen spinach, thawed (you could easily use fresh as well)
  • 2 cans artichoke hearts, chopped


  1. Place butter and garlic in a large, high rimmed pan over medium heat. Cook until fragrant (about 2-3 minutes).
  2. Add cheeses, milk, salt and pepper and whisk together until everything melts together in a creamy sauce. When sauce has come together, stir in spinach and artichoke hearts.
  3. Meanwhile, cook pasta according to package instructions. When fully cooked, drain and transfer into sauce.
  4. Toss pasta and sauce until fully combined, and serve.


Super Hero Thursday


Happy Super Hero Thursday everyone! Didn’t know today was a holiday? Well, don’t worry–I celebrate every Thursday, so you are free to join in at any time. Just buy some sort of super hero clothing item and wear it on a Thursday. Tada. Instant holiday. It started this summer because at my summer job “Thurthdayth are hard!” Yes, we say it in a lisp. We’re theatre people.

Today was an other crazy morning of spin–>dance–>meeting, followed by prep work and work work. But it started out on the right foot with my attire

Sorry it’s blurry. I’m not brave enough yet to ask gym strangers to take my picture haha. Spin class was killer today. Half way through I was D-U-N. It was the first time I actually felt like I had given so much so early in the class that I couldn’t continue to give 100%. That’s okay though, I just focused on getting through it for the rest of the time. Today’s ride was so hill-y and challenging in other ways that I’m not sure how to explain in words haha that I only wound up riding 20 mi today. It was good though,  and I’m taking tomorrow off so I’m glad I worked it out today! Dance class was hard again, but so good. I LOVE this teacher. She reminds me of what classes were like back in the Studio One days!

My lunch meeting happened at Sacks–YUM. If you live in Phoenix and you haven’t been to Sacks, what are you waiting for?! I almost always get whatever the hot special is on 12 grain bread. Today it was chicken and lots of spicy deliciousness. The second best thing about Sacks (the hot specials are the first best) is that with your sandwich, you get a perfectly sized chocolate chip cookie. Not like a huge cookie that constitutes about 4 servings, but a legit cookie serving of deliciousness. I would have taken a picture, but I got camera shy :)

When I got home from work, I was huuunnnggrrryyy and had a big craving for a box of Kraft mac n cheese. I remember when that stuff was a staple in my diet. I would eat pretty much an entire box to myself. Gross. You can judge me. I judge myself a little.

I decided to raid my pantry and fridge and figure out a way to satisfy my craving. The most amazing thing about this meal? From the moment I said to Steve “I want macaroni and cheese” to the moment the deliciousness hit my mouth was about 10 minutes–the same amount of time it would take to make the box filled with processed cheese powder!

I immediately grabbed a pretty random assortment of ingredients

And hoped for the best!

I boiled some pasta, sauteed some garlic and veggies

Added in a some goat cheese, cream cheese and skim milk. Mixed in some imitation crab.

And then despite Steve’s disapproval, added some green! And of course the pasta.

Clementine approved and wanted some in her food bowl

Ari’s Crabby Mac

yield 4 servings

  • 1 cup whole grain pasta (whole wheat, brown rice, etc.)
  • 4 oz reduced fat cream cheese
  • 4 oz herb goat cheese
  • 1/3-1/2 cup skim milk (we were out of almond milk, or I would have used that)
  • 2/3 cup crab meat (regular or imitation)
  • handful spinach leaves
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1/2 red pepper, chopped
  • 1/2 yellow onion, chopped
  • 1/2 tbs light whipped butter
  • a couple shakes Chalulah
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • chopped tomato for topping (optional)
  • extra spinach for topping (aptional)


1) Follow directions on the box to cook your pasta

2) Saute onion, pepper and garlic with butter over medium heat for approx 7 minutes

3) When veggies are tender, reduce heat to medium low. Add cheeses, milk, chalulah, and s&p. Whisk together until smooth.

4) Crumble in imitation crab and spinach

5) Add pasta and stir

6) Plate and top with extra spinach and tomato if desired

It totally fulfilled my craving and I had to stop myself from going back for seconds…because I had to save room for desert!


I’m Ari, and I am addicted to fro yo. No other dessert cuts it anymore. I just love fro yo and I crave it all the time.

Alright, I have a loooonnng day of teaching tomorrow followed by prep work to teach more Saturday. I plan on spending the rest of the night with the puppies, the husband and Project Runway! Goodnight all!